- Historic Sites
How The Indian Got The Horse
One innovation profoundly changed—and prolonged—the culture of the Plains Indians
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
Typically, this trading pattern would provide each tribe at first with a few older, gentler horses. Nez Percé tradition, handed down by word of mouth to early white frontiersmen, gives an account of such an event. According to this story they got their first animal, a gentle white mare, from the Shoshone in the Boise Valley. Day after day the curious Nez Percés gathered from all around to watch the mare crop grass near the village. They learned how a horse acted: how it fed, how it exercised, how it rested. In a few weeks the mare dropped a foal, and the crowds increased. Soon other villages sent south for horses of their own, to be treasured as curiosities and pets. At The Dalles, Oregon, some two hundred miles down river from the Nez Percé, the first few horses were led around at festivals and were shown at the big dances. Later they were used as pack animals, and finally as riding horses.
Although details of the first contacts with horses among the Plains tribes have been lost, they must have followed the Nez Percé pattern. In each case it would take a tribe only about ten to fifteen years to learn how to use the great innovation, and to build up a substantial herd.
Horses made life far easier, richer, and more exciting for the Plains tribes. One good horseman in a morning hunt could kill enough buffalo to supply his family with meat for weeks, and robes for a year. Now tepees could be much larger, for a horse could carry a lodge-covering weighing 200 to 300 pounds, and drag the many long tepee poles needed to support it. The whole band now had more leisure time, and more chance to develop the special Plains culture which was in full flower by 1800.
As for the impact of the horse on Indian warfare, it would be difficult to exaggerate. With the tremendous increase in mobility and speed, the Plains warrior became a truly formidable foe. General Randolph B. Marcy, a Regular Army officer with many years of experience in the West, wrote this impression of the mounted Indian in his memoirs:
His only ambition consists in being able to cope successfully with his enemy in war and in managing his steed with unfailing adroitness. He is in the saddle from boyhood to old age, and his favorite horse is his constant companion. It is when mounted that the prairie warrior exhibits himself to the best advantage; here he is at home, and his skill in various manoeuvers which he makes available in battle —such as throwing himself entirely upon one side of his horse and discharging his arrows with great rapidity toward the opposite side from beneath the animal’s neck while he is at full speed—is truly astonishing.… Every warrior has his war-horse, which is the fleetest that can be obtained, and he prizes him more highly than anything else in his possession, and it is seldom that he can be induced to part with him at any price.
Farming tribes along the borders of the Plains found the horses almost as valuable as did their brothers to the west. They began to range farther from home in a seminomadic state for several months of each year, subsisting more on meat and less on corn. Added mobility increased their trading area and gave them a greater variety of goods. Some of them even gave up their old ways entirely and became true nomads of the Plains.
Chief among these wanderers were the Sioux. They are usually considered the typical Indian tribe of the northern Plains, yet as late as 1766 at least one large band of Sioux still lived in the lake and swamp district of Minnesota. They used bark huts for shelter and canoes for transportation; wild rice furnished most of their food. Within the next decade they gave up their canoes for horses, and their wild rice for buffalo. They moved out to the grasslands of North Dakota and developed spectacular riding costumes topped with the famous Sioux war bonnet.
This late acquisition of horses by the Yankton Sioux emphasizes the relatively slow northward movement of the horse frontier on the Great Plains. Many thousands of animals were needed to fill those vast grazing lands and to supply the numerous large tribes. Winter storms and fierce wolves took heavy toll of the colts, so most of the increase of the herds depended on fresh stock from the New Mexico ranches.
West of the Continental Divide the horse moved northward more rapidly. Here the Indians were few in number, and in the central areas their small valleys furnished scant pasture; hence within thirty years or so, the horses had moved north of Great Salt Lake to the fine stock ranges of the upper Snake Valley, where they multiplied rapidly. Here they had ample protection from the winter storms and predators were less of a problem than on the Plains. Even the desert plateau furnished ample forage in the winter when storms filled the water holes. This was the country of the western Shoshone, who in time furnished stock to all their neighbors, especially to the Crows, Blackfeet, and Nez Percé.
Once the Nez Percé secured some breeding stock they found that their country was even better for raising range horses than the upper Snake Valley. With excellent grass, ample water, and both summer and winter ranges, it cost them little effort to raise more horses than they could use. They learned to geld some of their poorer stallions, and this practice, combined with their fine range land, produced horses of superior quality.